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Atlanta Hawks fired Nate McMillan, but the owner’s kid is real reason for team’s dysfunction

atlanta hawks
Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Now, all eyes are on Trae Young.

Nate McMillan is the second coach the Atlanta Hawks dismissed during Young’s tenure as “the guy” in Atlanta. The organization has made two bold commitments to their fifth-year star, sided with Young over both McMillan and former coach Lloyd Pierce. Whether it was the right move will be dictated by how Young coexists with their replacement in the coming years.

In the summer, former Hawks GM Travis Schlenk traded for All-Star guard Dejounte Murray from the San Antonio Spurs in a move that was reportedly influenced by Nick Ressler, the 27-year-old son of owner Tony Ressler. Nick Ressler is the Director of Business and Basketball Operations, a
dubious and ambiguous title devoid of defined responsibility and influence. But it’s obvious, as
the owner’s son, he is calling the shots.

Nick Ressler was apparently a major reason for Schlenk’s ouster, labeled him “stepping down” before assistant GM and Landry Fields, whose five-year playing career ended with the Toronto Raptors in 2015, “took over.”

Is nepotism the issue with Atlanta Hawks?

The younger Ressler has no business running a professional basketball team. No 27-year-old.
Especially not for reasons of nepotism. Just look at the 20-plus year reign of James Dolan with the
New York Knicks as an example of how cronyism and nepotism can rot a franchise from the top
down.

tony ressler
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Ressler’s role as the decision maker is even more fraught, as the team has tried desperately to not only build a contender around Young but appease him as well. For almost four years, forward John Collins has been mentioned in trade rumors. Another deadline passed with Collins remaining on the roster. Trading Collins, and giving more minutes and usage to De’Andre Hunter, AJ Griffin, and Onyeka Okongwu, athletes with defensive capabilities and perimeter spacing, should have been made years ago.

Instead, the Atlanta Hawks have failed to catch up to the rest of the NBA, manning traditional center Clint Capela in the middle next to the underwhelming Collins, who is neither great at offense nor defense. Instead, they have levied blame on their two head coaches and former GM.

There were multiple reported blowups between Young and McMillan. The worst incident was the Hawks fined Young for chartering a private flight during last season’s playoffs without informing the team. According to Lauren Williams of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Young chartered the private flight back to Atlanta following a Game 2 road loss to the Miami Heat in the first-round playoff series that the Hawks ultimately lost 4-1.

There was a similar division between Young and Pierce. In both cases, the Atlanta Hawks doubled down on backing Young. When McMillian replaced Pierce, the Hawks went on a terrific playoff run, ending in an Eastern Conference Finals run. Young was especially explosive during that stretch, averaging 28.8 points and 9.5 assists in the Hawks playoff run. But since? The Hawks were smacked by the Heat smothering Young in last year’s first round, with Young averaging just 15.4 points.

trae young
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

After adding Murray this summer, in an attempt to bolster their offense and allow Young to rest longer, they are one game under .500 at 29-30. It’s been a disappointing season, as under McMillan, Young and Murray often just took turns in ISO sets, with the rest of the Hawks players running around the perimeter praying for a pass.

Young has still put up All-Star numbers — averaging 26.7 points and 10.3 assists for the season. But the efficiency hasn’t gotten better, as he’s shooting 42.8 percent overall and 32.4 percent from three.

Trae Young being seen as Atlanta Hawks coach killer

With Lloyd, McMillan and Schlenk all out in Atlanta, the criticism toward Young as a coach killer
and diva is fair. It doesn’t mean he isn’t one of the 15 best players in the league. But he will be on his third coach and second GM in just five seasons. Young’s game, thus far, has resulted in exhilarating personal stats and acclaim. But a single ECF run is all he has to his playoff resume,
thus far. A similar critique could be levied at Luka Dončić, who Young was traded for on Draft
night 2018. Dončić also has also only gotten out of the first round once, with last year’s run to the Western Conference the only exception.

Both were Cinderella runs on the back of getting hot at the perfect time and playing opposing teams with internal issues. The difference is for the most part, Dončić has made his teammates better, even if it hasn’t led to consistent playoff success.

According to reports, Quin Snyder is the top coaching candidate to replace McMillan. Snyder
was known as a defensive maestro in Utah, but lacked creativity offensively. Whoever Ressler
Jr. decides to hire — because we all know the kid is running the circus — all eyes will be on how
Young augments his game to fit that coach’s vision. With two bonafide stars in the backcourt,
there will only be Young to blame if things do not turn around.

The most likely scenario will have the Atlanta Hawks experience a turnaround akin to 2021, making the playoffs and perhaps reaching the second round under their new coach. But even that might not be enough to appease Young, or enact any meaningful institutional change. And with a naive owner, spoiled brat running the show, and novice GM, what else could be expected but chaos?

Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo